January 02, 2007

Just another day

The year is ending and a new one is just around the corner. For those who are able, for the most part, to take control of their lives, having set out with clear-cut goals and being conscious of making progress in the achievement of these goals, the end of the year is usually a time for taking stock. All the better to welcome the new year with renewed hope for a better time to come, with a reinvigorated spirit to address life’s challenges or travails, depending on one’s circumstances and outlook.

What of ordinary folk? What does the unique juncture of an old year, fast fading away, and a new one, to be welcomed with the customary fireworks and cheerful greetings, mean for them?

I asked Lorie, a forty-year-old cook in a middle class family that she has loyally served for the some twenty-odd years, how life was for her and what she looked forward to in the coming year.

She spoke matter-of-factly. New Year ’s Day would just be another day except for the fireworks and her having the day off to be with her family. Her husband, Jun, works as driver to an old couple. He only comes home every two weeks, timed for when Lorie and their daughter would be at their dilapidated home in a low-end housing project. Jun managed to plunk his savings into this tiny piece of property in the outskirts of the city so that someday they could hope to own it. But they are always in arrears: the bank keeps sending warning notices of foreclosure unless they pay up. The water service has been cut because thieves ran away with the meter and the company was charging them double until they pay for a new meter to be installed. Lorie’s Christmas bonus would go to settling their account.

Her 11-year-old daughter lives with her in their employer’s residence and is in a private elementary school where she is an honor student but Lorie wasn’t too sure what the standards of teaching are. She worries sometimes whether she could still afford to put her daughter through high school with her measly salary but she would face the problem when it was already there, staring her in the face.

Lorie has a 19-year-old son by another man whom she met when she was a teen-ager, newly arrived from the province, still finding her way in her strange environs, young and vulnerable. (He never married her because he was already married, among other practical reasons.) The boy barely squeaked through elementary school in Lorie’s hometown in Samar. He grew up there with his peasant grandparents in a postcard-pretty setting of coconut trees, rice fields and mountains, punctuated by intermittent visits of New People’s Army guerillas to their far-flung barrio. He wants his mother to find a job for him in Manila because there are none in Samar and he has become a burden to his aging grandparents. Besides, there were worrisome incidents when some of his neighbors were picked up by the soldiers for some reason and came back beaten up or never came back at all.

Jun has been weighed down by bad attacks of asthma for the longest time, erratically treated because he can’t afford to maintain the proper medication. Lorie hopes that someday, somehow, her husband’s health problems will miraculously get better. For now, it is not too worrisome because he can still hold down a job and, anyway, she doesn’t witness the attacks first hand.

Interestingly, Jun supplements his income by joining anti-smuggling raids and other police operations as a civilian asset, whenever he can get away from his placid day job as a family driver. He was even issued a gun and it gives him a sense of power and reinforces his machismo. His wife is embarrassed to admit that the raiding party snitches some of the smuggled goods they confiscate; Jun brought home brand new t-shirts at one time.

Lorie thinks herself fortunate that she is not relegated to living in some squatter area where life she knows is miserly, mean and bleak. They all eat three square meals a day and are able to listen to the news on the radio or sometimes, even watch a noontime show when their employers aren’t around. Life is the same old routine, day in and day out, but she knows it could be worse and in fact, is far worse, for other unfortunate souls. It is enough that they survive on a day-to-day basis, have had no major catastrophes in the last few years, and can be together as a family every so often. There are no big dreams, no high hopes and their worst fears are held at bay so long as they have the strength to work and are considered useful and congenial enough by their employers.

Lorie finds the antics of the politicians as reported on her portable radio laughable. The chatter of radio commentators about charter change maneuvers by President Arroyo’s allies serve as background noise as she goes about her daily chores. She likes it better when show business news came up that are at least entertaining and she can marvel at the actors’ and actresses’ high living and imagine what it would be like not to be preoccupied with the daily grind of earning a living. She wonders about the rallies and the demonstrations, whether all the noise and bother will amount to anything much. Anyway, she doesn’t have any time now for that.

It is both an irony and a tragedy that ordinary toiling folk who make the goods and provide the services that make new year celebrations happy and the rest of the year productive are less and less able to partake of that wealth and happiness they help make possible. It’s not right by any standard when those who can give us the reason to hope and be happy have themselves lost that right, even just on New Year’s Day.

One wonders if it will be any different for Lorie's grandchildren.

It is our most cherished wish for the coming year, that the path towards a future of hope and meaning is continually being taken by more and more earnest men and women in this country and will indeed spell a difference in the lives of ordinary Filipinos and their families.

Happy new year to one and all!

*Published in Business World
29-30 December 2006


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